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Transition to a Democracy and Transformation into an Economic Powerhouse

Transition to a Democracy and Transformation into an Economic Powerhouse

Transition to a Democracy and Transformation into an Economic Powerhouse

In May 1948, the country’s first democratic election was held in South Korea under the UN’s supervision to elect the 198 members of the National Assembly. In July of the same year, the Constitution was enacted and Rhee Syngman and Yi Si-yeong, two independence fighters deeply respected by Koreans, were elected as the country’s first President and Vice President. On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (ROK) was launched as a free democracy, inheriting the legitimacy of the PGK. The UN recognized the government of the ROK as the only legitimate government on the Korean Peninsula.

However, to the north of the 38th parallel, a general election under UN supervision could not be carried out due to the Soviet Union’s opposition. On September 9, 1945, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established as a communist country, and Kim Il-sung, who had served as an officer of the Soviet Russian Army, was sworn in as the President. Amid the confrontation between a free democracy in the south and a communist dictatorship in the north, the ROK government led by President Rhee Syngman was burdened with many problems, such as the establishment of domestic order, the elimination of any remaining traces of the colonial rule, and conflicts between the right and the left among others.

Gyeongbu Expressway. Korea's first national expressway connecting Seoul and Busan was opened in 1970.

Gyeongbu Expressway. Korea's first national expressway connecting Seoul and Busan was opened in 1970.



On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops armed with Soviet-made tanks and fighters invaded the South, thus triggering an all-out war. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion and published a resolution recommending that its member states provide military assistance to South Korea. When the tide of the war turned against the North with the intervention of the UN Forces, Red Chinese troops intervened in the war on the North’s side. The two sides engaged in fierce battles until, on July 27, 1953, the two sides finally signed the armistice agreement. President Rhee Syngman did not sign the agreement, calling strongly for the prolongation of the war with the goal of unifying the entire country in the South’s favor.

The three-year-long internecine war started by the Communists reduced the entire Korean Peninsula to rubble. Millions of troops and civilians were killed. Most of the country’s industrial facilities were destroyed. South Korea became the poorest country in the world. However, the war taught South Koreans the preciousness of freedom. The experience provided the foundation that inspired patriotism in the hearts of young students and uniformed soldiers alike, and became the principal engine of the country’s modernization.

President Rhee Syngman strengthened his authoritarian rule. In 1960, the ruling Liberal Party rigged the Presidential election. Young students took to the streets in protest. The situation deteriorated when many demonstrators were shot down by the police. President Rhee Syngman announced his step-down and took refuge in Hawaii. Shortly thereafter, the Constitution was amended, and the Cabinet system and the bicameral National Assembly were adopted. Under the new constitution, the regime led by Prime Minister Jang Myeon was launched, but the political situation became extremely fragile amid political struggles and continued street demonstrations by students.

In May 1961, a group of young army officers led by General Park Chung-hee seized power in a coup d’état. In the presidential election held in October 1963, after two years of military rule, Park Chung-hee, having retired from the military, was elected as President and inaugurated in December that same year. The government led by President Park set up a 5-year economic development plan under the slogan of “modernization of the fatherland” and achieved rapid economic growth by implementing an export-oriented policy.

Observers called it “the Miracle on the Hangang River.” The country vigorously pushed ahead with the development of national land, including the construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway and subway lines in large cities. The country also carried out the Saemaeul Undong (New Community Movement), turning the impoverished agricultural society into a country focused mainly on manufacturing.

When the government announced the Yusin (Revitalization Reform), which were designed to extend the term of the incumbent government after eighteen years of dictatorship, in October 1972, students and ordinary people engaged in the democratization movement. After the assassination of President Park in October 1979, a new group of army officers led by General Chun Doo-hwan (Singunbu) seized power through a coup d’état. Singunbu suppressed the voices calling for democratization, including the May 18 Democratization Movement, by force. Chun Doo-hwan was sworn in as the President and ruled with an authoritarian grip. The Chun Doo-hwan government concentrated on economic stabilization, successfully bringing inflated prices under control. Under his leadership, the country accomplished continued economic growth.

In June 1987, Roh Tae-woo, a presidential hopeful of the ruling party, made a special announcement to the effect that he would accept the people’s request for democratization and direct election of the President. In December of the same year, he was elected to a five-year term as President. He was sworn in as President in February 1988. The Roh Tae-woo administration established diplomatic relations with Communist countries, including the Soviet Union, China, and those in Eastern Europe. During his term, the two Koreas joined the UN simultaneously, in September 1991.

The Kim Young-sam government, which was inaugurated in 1993, strove to eliminate corruption by making it a rule for high-ranking public officials to register all their assets and by prohibiting the use of false names in all financial transactions. The level of transparency in business transactions was considerably enhanced by this measure. The government also implemented the local autonomy system in full force. Kim Dae-jung was inaugurated as President in 1998. His government succeeded in overcoming the foreign exchange crisis that had hit the country one year earlier, and strove to develop both democracy and the market economy. In its relations with the North, the government adopted the “sunshine policy.” In June 2000, the leaders of the two Koreas met at a summit held in Pyeongyang, North Korea, and made a joint statement. Then, the two Koreas established a system of reconciliation and cooperation, and agreed on the reunion of dispersed family members, reconnection of the Gyeongui and Donghae railroad lines, revitalization of the unification movement led by the private sector, and the expansion of economic cooperation, including sightseeing in Geumgangsan Mountain.

The Roh Moo-hyun government, which was inaugurated in 2003, concentrated on three leading objectives, namely, the realization of democracy with the participation of the people, balanced social development, and the construction of Northeast Asia with the focus on peace and prosperity. The government also held the second summit between the leaders of the two Koreas in Pyeongyang in October 2007 and signed an FTA with the United States.

The Lee Myung-bak administration, which was inaugurated in February 2008, announced five leading indicators in a bid for the establishment of a new development system with the focus on changes and practicality. The government stressed that it would be a government that would serve the people. It also made efforts to reduce the government organization, privatize public corporations (in addition to making them operate more efficiently), and reform administrative regulations. Other policies adopted by the government included the forging of a creative alliance with the United States as befits the 21st century, and the creation of a global Korea under the South-North Economic Community.

The 18th President, Park Geun-hye. She was inaugurated in February 2013 as the country’s first female President

The 18th President, Park Geun-hye. She was inaugurated in February 2013 as the country’s first female President



Ms. Park Geun-hye became the country’s first woman to be elected President in the election held in December 2012. She was inaugurated in February 2013. Her government presented a new vision: Nation’s Development and People’s Happiness. Over the past sixty-five years (1948-2013), the country has transformed itself from one of the most impoverished countries in the world to an economic powerhouse and an exemplar of free democracy. This process may be viewed as a unique example in world history.

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